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HOW PLEASURE WORKS: THE NEW SCIENCE


OF WHY WE LIKE WHAT WE LIKE (Unplugged)
A conversation between Paul Bloom & Moe Abdou
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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou
Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)
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About Paul Bloom & Moe Abdou

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research


explores how children and adults understand the physical and social
world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has
won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president
of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral
and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field.

Moe Abdou

Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things


that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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Your book is very intriguing to me. You talk about how deep pleasure is
and about the importance of what really matters and how it leads us to
this pleasure. The first thought that came to mind, Dr. Bloom; is what
stimulates our thinking that leads us away from pleasure most of the time?

In other words, why don’t we take pleasure from certain things?

Yeah. If we think about something to stimulate our perception and/or our


pleasure, why is the world filled with a lot of people thinking almost
completely in the other direction?

I think we wouldn’t want to be a creature that took pleasure in everything. So


when I argue that we take our experience of something that is colored by how
we see it, this doesn’t necessarily imply that how we see it is under voluntary
control. So what it means is it’s affected by our understanding of it. The
understanding that a painting was painted by a certain person or that a food
was made in a certain way and that affects us.

You could imagine a creature very different from us that could just simply
choose to be affected in different ways. They could chose to like an
incompetent forgery just as much as masterpiece or they can choose to like
food that was dipped in dirt as opposed to fresh food but we’re not such
creatures. I’m not sure we would want to be such creatures. So to some extent,
our pleasure reflects I think a discernment that would be good to have.

Do you think there is an appropriate percentage where we want to at least


be happy or perceived happy?

My book isn’t so much about happiness. I’m more interested in the cases of why
we get pleasure from some things versus other things. The argument I make, as
you put it is, that we’re sensitive to the deeper nature of things. It’s our
understanding that shapes our pleasure.

The way the world works is that often our pleasure resonates I think to real
value, to real important things. I’m not sure we’d want to be the sort of person
- again the sort of animal that would take pleasure in anything and it just
doesn’t matter. We just throw the mental switch and achieve transcendent
pleasure and then it wouldn’t matter what we ate. It wouldn’t matter what TV
shows we watched. What our work we looked at. I think something would be
lost.

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Do you think sometimes we misuse the word pleasure? I mean, we hear


sometimes this person gets pleasure in killing somebody, or this person
gets pleasure in these particular activities. One of the things that kept
ringing through my mind as I kept reading your book, maybe as a society
we don’t understand the word or maybe we just misuse it.

I think we could use the word in all sorts of ways. I’m not sure it’s wrong to say
that people get pleasure from doing terrible things or pleasure from immorality
or pleasure from foolish activities or activities that at least you and I might
agree are foolish. When I use the word pleasure and there are different ways to
use it, I view it to some extent in a value neutral way.

So we can take pleasure in things that are morally good. We can also take
pleasure in things that are morally bad. This is why to some extent I would like
to dissociate pleasure from maybe broader questions about living the good life.
I think that there are a lot of things you do to live a good life …that you do that
really aren’t pleasurable and maybe shouldn’t be pleasurable.

You take certain social interactions. I think everybody; every good parent
should be willing to punish his or her child. But I’m not sure what I would think
about somebody enjoying it, taking pleasure from it.

I use the term pleasure in a broad sense; in a value neutral sense. I’m entirely
comfortable with saying that somebody getting pleasure from doing something
awful. There is no contradiction for me. What this means is that sometimes it’s
not right to take pleasure and I’m comfortable with that.

When I look at this from a business context, and I look at the example of
the big oil crisis we are seeing on the news everyday. Certainly, they
didn’t take pleasure in that happening. So I look at pleasure in the context
of your work from a business point. It stimulates some thinking as how can
a corporation truly add pleasure in the right context, to its customer base,
to its stakeholders, to its employees.

I think that’s a great question. Let me just take the first part about the
customer base. I think to some extent, what my book does is make an
argument that is unfamiliar to many psychologists and perhaps novel from a
somewhat scientific perspective, but somewhat second nature to people
involved in marketing. What I argue is that the pleasure we take in an object
like a painting or a Rolex watch or an Armani suit or something like that
doesn’t reduce to its material aspects. The material aspects are relevant but I
don’t think those are the most relevant things. The most relevant factor here is

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the objects understood nature. That could be, who made it? How it was made?
Who likes it? The social context in which it was generated, one example which I
don’t discuss in my book but I’m working on independently is you can buy
something that is so close to a Rolex watch that only an expert could tell the
difference and pay one-hundredth of the price. Why don’t we do it then? In
part because a Rolex watch gets value because it’s presumed to have a certain
history, a certain pedigree. It’s that which gives us pleasure. It’s not just
snobbery. We really react to it differently; the same with an Armani suit or an
expensive brand of whiskey and that for all of these things, it makes a
difference to us, the story behind it.

So this is why so many successful companies are in the story business. They’re
in the business of persuading people that the products that they want them to
buy are made with love, they’re one of a kind, they’re the newest, they’re the
oldest, they’re the one’s used by celebrities. And they do this because they
believe; I think correctly that this makes a difference, not just to which people
choose to buy but actually to have people experience these things.

Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. Talking about it from that perspective,


most of us don’t find pleasure in being sold something. Sometimes you feel
when somebody is selling you that perhaps they’re not telling you the real
stories yet most sales people tend to find it very pleasurable when they
close a sale.

We’re naturally cautious individuals. To some extent, a lot of interaction,


everything from sex to romance to marketing is in some sense a clash between
people of different interests. You’re trying to sell me something and you’re
telling me a story. I’m trying to figure out what the right thing to buy is and
I’m trying to asses whether your story is accurate or not. It’s in your interest to
make the object or the person as attractive as possible. It’s in my interest to
find the truth.

So this exists in the marketing realm. It also exists in the interpersonal realm.
If somebody is trying to woo somebody else, he or she wants to seem as sexy
and smart and as kind as possible. The other person wants to see this person’s
true nature. I’m not the first to suggest that the clash between the sort of
somebody involved in marketing and a consumer is sort of structurally similar
when somebody chooses a sexual or romantic partner.

You talk about how as a leisure activity for most human beings, we
participate in experiences that aren’t real, that is maybe the one activity

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that you reference we do the most. Do we enjoy these imaginative


experiences because at some level we perceive them as real?

It’s a good question. I think the answer to that is yes. I think there are two
things going on in our appreciation of imagined experiences. One is that they
tickle the same pleasurable responses that the real world tickles. One reason
why pornography is so incredibly popular is that we respond to it as if we were
seeing real people. So our evolved sexuality can be triggered by these two
dimensional images just as it’s triggered by real things. That’s half the story. I
think that’s an important half of the story.

The other half of the story though is that if you know something is imagined,
you sort of throw a switch in your head and you could respond to it in
somewhat different ways. For instance, the morality of the situation changes.
You’d be a cruel person if you enjoy the pain of others in the real world. But,
to take pleasure in the pain of others when watching a play by Shakespeare or
an HBO series like The Sopranos, you could just get pleasure out of it because
you know it’s fictional and that’s an entirely different thing.

So imagination is a wonderful case, as you point out, this is our biggest


pleasure. If you took a clock and timed the different pleasures you get from
each day, imagination will win out by far. TV, movies, books, daydreaming,
fantasy, dreams, all of these are unreal but you can enjoy all of them. But at
the same time, it speaks to two different things. In part, we enjoy it because
we respond to it as though it was real and then in part, knowing that it’s
imagined, changes the rules and allows for avenues of pleasure that we just
can’t get from the real world.

Obviously, you know that a lot of the great athletes of the world visualize
their games in their minds before they play the game. Is this what you’re
saying here? Maybe if we can really start to imagine our experiences in our
lives, perhaps we might have a better opportunity to live a life like the
athlete that is visualizing the Saturday game and actually creates it.

I think to some extent that’s why we enjoy fiction. So the question is why do
we like stories so much? I think one answer to this and this is an answer that
has been proposed by many philosophers and psychologists. The athlete
mentally rehearsing his or her shot, it’s a way of practicing. It’s a way of
practicing alternative realities. We’re driven to sort of imagine ourselves in
different situations, imagine novel and social interactions. Some of them are
quite scary. Some of them are tragic because this is useful practice for the real

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world. So in some way you could view our love of stories as to some extent a
sort of exercise regime for our social minds.

And the pleasure we take in that is similar to the pleasure we take in any sort
of play. So you step back, why do we like animals enjoy playing? Why do we
enjoy running around? Why do we enjoy play fighting? Why do we enjoy video
games? From a Darwinian standpoint, it seems mad. Why would we waste our
time on this? But the answer is I think, as illustrated by your story about the
athlete is because play is useful practice for the real thing. It’s safe practice.

Do we lose our imagination as adults? Watching kids it appears that they


definitely have it.

I think if anything, adults have richer and more powerful imaginations than kids.
Kids do a lot of pretend in play but nothing compared to the sort of play and
pretend that an adult does. We immerse ourselves in imaginary worlds all the
time. We’re endless daydreamers. I think children are imaginative creatures
but they’re just coping from day to day, minute to minute with the struggles of
dealing with reality. For an adult like you and me, we often have reality lit. We
make things harder for ourselves and we explore imaginary worlds.

Is that why most adults don’t understand themselves very much? Is there a
reason why we’re not more self -accepting individuals and professionals?

I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not sure what it means to say we’re not self
accepting.

Sometimes we’re very judgmental. We want to constantly become a better


person or we are constantly criticizing ourselves for not doing something
right or not doing something perfect. I know very few people who truly
understand themselves.

In some sense, what you have there is another interesting clash of interests.
Because, if you want to be happy, if you’re mind is evolved to be happy then
no matter what you’re up to, you’d be perfectly pleased with what you’re
doing but, we’re not such creatures. We’re creatures that have often that
evolved an eye towards out fighting, out charming, out reproducing everybody
else.

So it pays for an animal like us to actually be fairly self evaluative, to


constantly judge ourselves relative to other people because as a primate, you
want to know where you are relative to other members of your tribe. You want

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to know where you are in that state of hierarchy and the more brutally honest
you are, the better because that helps you calibrate your behavior and behave
in more appropriate manners. Its interesting how if we have evolved to just be
happy, we’d be blissful creatures, then we’d be sort of satisfied to wherever
we are. But, we have evolved for other things. So this leads to sort of a basic
insecurity and turmoil as part of the human condition.

You know what is very intriguing especially as you’re saying that, I’m
thinking perhaps our emotions become insensitive between what’s real and
what’s imaginary as we really embrace this.

Some of our emotions are insensitive between the real and imaginary. Basically,
we respond to pornographic images as if they were real people. Our mouths
could water when we look at commercial which has some delicious food. We
scream at horror movies. To some extent, we are insensitive. But to some
extent we aren’t. We could follow a TV program such as the program Breaking
Bad which has these wonderfully unsympathetic characters. If they were real, I
would be repelled by them. But because I know they’re not real, I find them
attractive and interesting. This is I think one of these great gifts that adults
have to understand these behaviors and imagine a world in these two different
ways.

What intrigues you about this topic? I know that this is an area that you
continue to explore but as you further your research in that area, what
intrigues you about this whole notion of pleasure?

I think pleasure is absolutely fascinating because it tells us a lot about how the
mind works. I think our everyday pleasures tap in to notions such as our
understanding of objects or understanding of people, our evaluation of social
interactions, our sexual desire. Everything from very primitive desires like
thirst and hunger to more abstract desires that are satisfied by religion and by
science. To some extent, I think that if you would understand pleasure, you
would understand everything. That’s why I find it a very interesting topic.

How can we as human beings or people in the business world gain a better
understanding of pleasure. I had mentioned to you that I recommended this
book to several of my friends as somebody recommended it to me. I’m
certainly not at your level of intrigue but I’m very intrigued by this topic.
How can we start to learn more about this area?

I think there is a lot of intriguing and exciting research from it. I talked about
some of the research in my book. There are other books … the very well known

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work of people like Dan Ariely on Behavioral Economics, often bears directly on
pleasure. Some questions which I’m very interested in, some questions that are
somewhat independent of mine such the pleasures we associate or don’t
associate with money. I think that the fields of cognitive science and
evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics really can yield some
practical and beneficial and quite fascinating insights.

Are there any unanswered questions for you particularly with this topic at
this stage?

They’re all unanswered questions. There are so many deep puzzles. I’ll tell you
one unanswered question. I don’t fully understand, I have some ideas, but
don’t fully understand why we are so drawn to mild pain. So one of the
interesting facts about humans is we like to Tabasco sauce, we like hot baths,
we like exercise that pushes us to the limit. It’s unclear where this pleasure
from pain comes from and I’m very interested in that.

I’m interested in your work and I appreciate you taking the time to give us
this brief interview because I really believe that this the more individuals
specifically entrepreneurs explore this topic. I think the more excitement
they’re going to have in their lives and their businesses.

Thank you. This has been a very generous and a very interesting interview.

Well I appreciate it very much and hopefully we can keep the conversation
going.

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